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Three novels by Kim Young-ha

DESPITE EXPORTING FOOD, film, advanced gadgetry, and dance music with unprecedented fervor and pride, South Korea has still produced curiously little in the way of an international literature. As Japan rose from the aftermath of the Second World War, so did vital men of letters like Kobo Abe, Oe Kenzaburo, and Yukio Mishima — names discussed in the West to this day. Japanese women of letters, a thread of unusual strength and length for an East Asian culture, running from Lady Murasaki and The Tale of Genji in the 11th century, continues through Yoko Ogawa and Banana Yoshimoto today. Haruki Murakami rose from the 1980s — the bubble era when fear of the Rising Sun’s apparent wealth and drive reached its apex — and would become the most globally appealing novelist alive, which he remains even today, when observers describe his country as well over a decade on the skids.

Now turned outward as far as Japan has often turned inward, South Korea draws enthusiasts from all over the world. But pity the literarily inclined Koreaphile, filled with high hopes and accustomed by Western fiction to at least a thin layer of allegorical padding, for he usually winds up mired in nakedly melodramatic, discomfitingly direct meditations on national suffering in general, and the separation of North from South in particular. One period of national suffering stands out: the years 1910 to 1945, when the Korean Peninsula endured, at the hands of the Japanese military, something between a suppression and an erasure of its cultural identity. Generations of South Korean writers look past that era of occupation with difficulty, and they struggle harder still to find subjects beyond their land’s subsequent split into two.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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